To longtime Yale administrator Henry “Sam” Chauncey ’57, University President Richard Levin may be one of the greatest administrators Yale has seen in modern times — but he is also among the most reserved.
“I, for one, would like to see more university presidents speak out now more than they are [on] the issues of the world,” he said of Levin and other university presidents Wednesday. “[There] is a deafening silence among university presidents on major topics.”
Before about 75 Yale affiliates — almost all of whom were graduates and fellows — at a Master’s Tea in Davenport College on Wednesday, Chauncey assessed the work of past University presidents from A. Whitney Griswold ’29 to Levin. Presidents of the 20th century “unwittingly” laid the foundation for Levin to expand the University in his “pragmatic” vision, Chauncey said. But Chauncey also noted that, besides Griswold and his successor, Kingman Brewster ’41, presidents over the past six decades have been too quiet on non-educational national issues.
After the tea, Chauncey said students and University administrators such as Levin are noticeably quieter today than their counterparts in the 1960s. Chauncey recounted a recent experience when he asked several Yale undergraduates why they chose not to protest against contentious government policies such as torture and the invasion of the Iraq War. Chauncey said they told him, “Because we might get something put on our resumes.”
“I call that chicken,” he said. “Students who aren’t willing to speak out against a government policy because he or she is afraid for their job — it shows a lack of conviction.”
But the issue of outspokenness is complicated for Levin and other university presidents, Chauncey said. Those leaders only have limited amounts of what Chauncey termed “voice power,” and must therefore decide whether to discourse on educational issues or governmental policy. Recent presidents have chosen the former, he said.
Chauncey did not specifically say what topics he would want Levin to speak on, but he added that the collegiate community as a whole should speak more on government policy.
Levin has traditionally been quiet on issues outside the realm of education. But he has made exceptions: He briefly, but publicly, criticized Yale-New Haven Hospital officials in December 2006 for hindering the efforts of workers who wanted to unionize. And last April, Levin told the News that he “expressed concern” to the Chinese government over the instability of Tibet at the time and urged the government to seek a peaceful resolution.
Levin said in an interview Wednesday that he only discusses issues that directly affect the University and matters in which he has “special expertise.”
“On things like immigration and export control, these issues do affect Yale, he said. “But they [also] are broader national policy issues that I felt were important in their connection to American economic competitiveness.”
He added: “I was an economist once.”
Chauncey held the position of University secretary under Brewster. He would later serve as an informal adviser to virtually all of Yale’s presidents since the 1950s. To introduce Chauncey’s tea, “The Emergence of a Great University,” Davenport Master Richard Schottenfeld ’71 MED ’76 said Chauncey had been instrumental in bringing about the University’s growth.
“He’ll tell you about what the presidents did,” Schottenfeld said. “But when you think of what the presidents did, you have to think of who were the presidents’ advisors.”
Personal anecdotes — such as when Brewster called Chauncey in the middle of the night to ask what to do with four black youth throwing horse-chestnuts at Brewster’s house — drew laughs during the tea.
Four audience members interviewed after the tea said they found it interesting.
Computer science department chair Avi Silberschatz said Levin’s reserved nature on government policy issues is sensible.
“It’s going to make the life of the president much more difficult if he’s much more vocal,” Silberschatz said.
Chauncey also taught at the University in 1994, becoming a lecturer and head of the Health Management Program at the School of Public Health.
Paul Needham contributed reporting.